Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 06, 2019 9:57 pm 
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Beautiful but sometimes unrevealing doc about an aibitious bio-diverse farm project

As this film begins, the Chesters, John and Molly, are a couple who live in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica doing their jobs. He is a photographer, particularly of wildlife, she a private chef and culinary blogger. But they harbor a secret dream of operating a traditional bio-diverse farm, which they are prompted to realize, as they tell it, after adopting from the pound a black dog with piercing, sad eyes named Todd. Todd gets them evicted, because he barks all day long whenever they are out.

This documentary is a remarkable story, and it is beautifully told - in the literal sense that it's told with beautiful images. The telling is not in other ways altogether satisfying, and sometimes it is maddening. For the film, John headed a team of cameramen who produced gorgeous images of this farm they created. It is in fact an obvious criticism that, since this farm is very much a commercial operation and indeed a brand, The Biggest Little Farm is first and foremost a promotional film. Why one is moved to say that is because it's not as informative as one would like. It's never clear whether in this Chester is intentionally unrevealing, or simply careless.

Do not be prevented by my criticisms from seeing this depiction of an awesome, multifarious restoration of 200 acres of exhausted, dry farmland in Moorpark, California about fifty miles from Los Angeles. The range of plant and animal life the Chesters managed over an eight-year period to forge into some kind of harmony (or successful disharmony) is remarkable and sometimes amusing to watch. But do be aware that many questions are left unanswered. The film's meandering rhythm and John Chester's homely philosophizing do not add up to a good documentary, despite the beautiful photography of farm animals and wildlife.

When the couple first decide to try to raise money for this project, which they later refer to as Apricot Lane Farms, we see a gang of friends or associates gathered, to mock but perhaps partly to support them, wearing pig snout masks that signal these city slickers' firm distance from agricultural matters. And yet, somehow the Chesters get together the money. We just don't know how, or how much.

Nor does the film go into much detail about how the farm is managed and staffed, the multitude of people brought to work there, except for a couple of local farm hands already there. Notably also there is an expert on traditional farms named Alan York. There isn't much detail given about traditional or biodiverse farms. Where did they exist? We don't learn about Alan York's background either (you can find his life story online; it does not mention his connection with the Chesters). Alan becomes their mentor, and apparently stays around. Certainly many young people (one, called Josh, is called by name) come and go. How they recruited (online, we're told), whether they're paid, where they bunk, is omitted.

Many details are told about the animal and plant stocking of the farm, for instance of the staggering number of fruit varieties brought in and planted; the decorative way the land is cultivated (see photo), which looks like a farm in Europe somewhere; of the box-loads of baby ducks and chicks shipped to them, and used. Apparently early on the farm produces a lot of chicken eggs and they sell out immediately in the market. But the farm also loses a lot of chickens to coyotes. Indeed, the farming seems to turn into a battle against pests: snails devour fruit tree leaves and keep them from bearing fruit. Two white herding dogs are brought in, which makes Todd, the sleek black mutt, jealous. Todd remains a motif - his eyes seeming to question the whole enterprise - helping somewhat to pull this meandering film together.

There is a herd of darling little black and white sheep, repeatedly shown, decoratively, from high above, except that makes them look a bit like insects. (There was a ruined bee hive on the farm and that gets revived with a veteran apiarist brought in.) How the sheep function in the farm remains vague as well as who manages all these animals. Chester is clearly interested in the biodiversity and the interrelations of species much more than the economics or practical details of farm management. But this is a pity, because Apricot Lane Farms is at least as interesting as a commercial enterprise and a feat of freshly learned technology as it is as an agricultural experiment.

Above all attention is focused, perhaps to unify the film and lend cuteness, on what seems to be the last livestock addition, a large female pig, called Emma - renamed from "Ugly Betty," a moniker John and Molly didn't like/ Emma is brought in pregnant, and produces well over a dozen piglets, which so exhausts her she stops eating and almost dies. It appears that bringing in the piglets to suck revives Emma's will to live, but like many other things, that's a detail left vague in Chester's narration. Later, Emma gives birth again. I was confused about who sired this new litter. She has a "friend," a bedraggled stray rooster. Another theme is cross-species friendship, which seems inevitable here given the multiplicity of species in close proximity on the farm, as well as the folksy, feel-good tone of this film.

Interspersed with John's philosophizing come zen-like pronouncements from the bio-diverse, traditional farm expert Alan York. Eventually, York reveals his greatest secret: that he has an aggressive form of cancer, and is dying. He must leave, and he never recovers or returns, thus leaving John and Molly bereft and feeling utterly helpless. They appear to have counted on York's wisdom and expertise not only for a multitude of specific details as the years go by, but simply for his guiding spirit. His death seems a great loss to them.

Nonetheless, the farm survives the snails, the coyotes, the decimations of chickens and ducks, underproduction of fruits and herbs, and other disasters. When there is the great 2011-2015 drought starting early on, and then at the end of it eighteen inches of rain, that rain washes away topsoil from surrounding farms, but the Chester's farm's now very rich soil is held firmly in place by its ground cover, planted everywhere. (The exact nature of the ground cover is another thing left unspecified.) Later, though not too much later since we see him grow up in the course of the eight-year span of the film, the Chesters have their own baby boy, adding to the cycle of life on the human side.

The Biggest Little Farm, 95 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2018 and was included in 22 other festivals including Toronto and Sundance. It was reviewed by Peter Debruge forVariety. It opens in Landmark Theaters starting May 10, 2019 (The Landmark at 57 West, NYC). Landmark Embarcadero San Francisco May 17. Metascore 75%.

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